Under fire in recent weeks for playing footsie with white nationalists, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer denounced Friday’s horrific attack in New Zealand as an attack on freedom, while initially failing to mention that Muslims were the victims of a terrorist attack.
"Freedom has come under attack in New Zealand as peaceful worshippers are targeted in a despicable act of evil. All people must be able to practice their faith freely and without fear," said the statement posted on Scheer's Twitter account. "There are no words strong enough to condemn this kind of vile hatred. I am praying for peace for the families of those lost and recovery for those injured."
Scheer posted the same message on his Facebook page, but hours later issued a new statement that said his Conservative party was "grieving" with the Muslim community.
Scheer recently participated in a rally in Ottawa that included people with some extreme anti-immigrant and racist views, as well as supporters of pipelines. But he failed to denounce the extreme elements at the rally, instead saying that he was standing with them and backing their fight.
He later said that he was there to support energy workers and that Liberals were trying to create a distraction by focusing on "other elements that tried to associate themselves with the event."
Those other elements came out in full force on Friday, as members of a group that was involved in organizing the Ottawa rally appeared to celebrate on Facebook as they watched a live feed of the attack on the New Zealand mosques.
"About time," one said.
"When will Muslims understand they are NOT welcome here," another said.
"Nobody cries when a Muslim dies," a third wrote.
A fourth shared a gif from The Simpsons portraying an unimpressed Bart and Lisa Simpson saying "meh."
Hi @AndrewScheer,— Fatima Syed (@fatimabsyed) March 15, 2019
I'm a reporter w/@NatObserver.
You recently spoke at a rally w/Faith Goldy, a known white supremacist who has bashed Muslims many times. Do you regret doing that in light of the #Christchurch mosque attack? How do you plan to tackle white supremacy+Islamaphobia? https://t.co/g2C7dCunyV
Trudeau says Canadians 'appalled' by news of terrorist attack
In contrast, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau bluntly condemned the intolerance which led to the terrorist attack.
"Canadians across the country were appalled to wake up to news of the terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed and injured so many people, including children," Trudeau said in a statement. "Too often, Muslims suffer unimaginable loss and pain in the places where they should feel safest. Canada remembers too well the sorrow we felt when a senseless attack on the Centre culturel islamique de Québec in Ste-Foy claimed the lives of many innocent people gathered in prayer.
"To move forward as a world, we need to recognize diversity as a source of strength, and not a threat."
The attack left at least 49 people dead and 48 injured. A person who claimed responsibility for the barbaric act subscribed to the ideas of white supremacy, including the conspiracy theory that immigrants were replacing white people in western countries, and a view that people of colour should not live in those countries.
National Observer asked Scheer's office 11 days ago to respond to accusations from two ministers that he failed to condemn racist and anti-immigrant messages when he spoke at the truck convoy, and didn't get a response. Faith Goldy, a known white supremacist who has bashed Muslims and Islam several times and appeared in neo-Nazi media, was also present at the convoy.
Scheer also provided no response to questions about whether he does regrets his decision and what he will do to tackle the issue of white supremacy and Islamophobia were received at the time of publication.
We extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends who lost loved ones in the terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand. Please read my statement on this senseless tragedy: https://t.co/hSxGVQCTZE— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) March 15, 2019
Later on Friday, Scheer's new statement denounced the tragedy as an act of terror, while extending an olive branch to the Muslim community.
“As Canadians are learning the horrific details of last night’s terror attack at two New Zealand mosques, I wish to express both my deep sadness at the tragic loss of innocent life and my profound condemnation of this cowardly and hateful attack on the Muslim community," Scheer said in the updated statement.“Houses of worship, like the two mosques attacked last night, should be places where all people can meet freely and without fear. We stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters to ensure that they remain this way. We must condemn, in the strongest terms possible, the type of extreme and vile hatred that motivated this despicable act of evil.
He added that the Conservative Party of Canada was grieving with the community over the loss of dozens of innocent lives, each one a victim of hate.
“To the injured, and to the families and friends of all who were lost, we wish you strength on this dark day," Scheer said. "To the Muslim community around the world and here at home in Canada, we stand with you and reaffirm our commitment to building a world where every people, of every faith, can live in freedom and peace together.”
People's Party of Canada founder Maxime Bernier, a former Conservative MP and cabinet minister, did not initially issue any statements in response to the terror attack on Friday morning. Bernier has also been criticized for flirting with far-right activists and promoting anti-immigrant views.
Fear of immigrants prevalent in political discourse
In recent years the list of those who subscribe to white nationalism and act on them has grown. It includes Robert Gregory Bowers' killing of 12 Jewish worshippers at a Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2018; Alexandre Bissonnette's massacre of six Muslims in the Quebec City mosque in 2017; Dylann Roof's murder of nine black Christian parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015; and Anders Behring Breivik's slaughter of 77 people in Norway in 2011.
A now-deleted Twitter account that is believed to be linked to the accused shooter in New Zealand shows what appears to be three assault-rifle magazines, one of which has Bissonnette's name on it. In a delusional, psychotic rant that many are recognizing to be a "manifesto," the yet to be named shooter also identified with many of the ideas Behring wrote in a document as well about “defending” white nationalism.
According to a Guardian report, four suspects – three men and a woman – are in custody and multiple explosive devices have been found attached to cars in the city.
The issues identified by the perpetrators of attacks such as the ones in Quebec and New Zealand, particularly those conveying a fear of immigrants and refugees, continue to be prevalent in political discourse. In the hours after the attacks a sitting Australian senator blamed “the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand” in an open letter.
"However, whilst this kind of violent vigilantism can never be justified, what it highlights is a the growing fear within our community, both in Australia and New Zealand, of the increasing Muslim presence."
Just incredible: As 49 Muslim worshippers lay dead in New Zealand, a sitting Australian senator blames “the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand”. pic.twitter.com/13w7aAK8IR— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) March 15, 2019
Quebec Premier François Legault also denounced the terrible attack, noting with dismay that the shooter was only targeting Muslims.
"We also recently experienced a tragedy that has affected us all in Quebec," Legault said. "I stand in solidarity with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and I understand her sadness today. There is no place for extremism in our societies. There is no place for intolerance. We must not allow violence to take root in our democratic societies."
Two days after the second anniversary of the Quebec mosque shooting, Legault claimed there’s no Islamophobia in Quebec and therefore no need for a day dedicated to action against Islamophobia. He later conceded that it exists, but that it's not widespread in the province, the CBC reported in February.
Des dizaines de personnes ont trouvé la mort lors d’attentats dans deux mosquées en Nouvelle-Zélande. Je le réitère, il n’y a pas de place pour l’extrémisme dans nos sociétés, il n’y a pas de place pour l’intolérance.— François Legault (@francoislegault) March 15, 2019
Voici ma déclaration: pic.twitter.com/CuxHG5uGnH
But, while Scheer may have initially avoided the core issue in Canada, members of his Conservative caucus did not.
Conservative MP Michael Chong was one of the few politicians who called the attack blatantly for being representative of "terrorism in the form of white supremacists attacking minorities."
Tory MP Lisa Raitt shared Scheer's statement and subsequently called the attack "pure hatred," while warning that she would block anyone who posted anti-Muslim statements.
6 innocent people shot to death while at worship in a Quebec City mosque. 49 innocent people shot to death while at worship in two Christchurch mosques. We’ve got a problem with terrorism in the form of white supremacists attacking minorities. #cdnpoli https://t.co/MAFMfphdYS— Michael Chong 🇨🇦 (@MichaelChongMP) March 15, 2019
49 people were murdered in Christchurch NZ yesterday. This terror has no place in our society. It is pure hatred. My condolences to all those impacted & I wish peace upon those in the Muslim community affected by this horrific tragedy. We should never be fearful of worshipping— Lisa Raitt (@lraitt) March 15, 2019
Anyone who comments on my previous posts with anti-Muslim statements will be blocked.— Lisa Raitt (@lraitt) March 15, 2019
Andrew MacDougall, former prime minister Stephen Harper's spokesman, urged Scheer to correct his oversights.
"Delete and try again. Name the place of worship. Name their religion. Put your arms around them. Condemn the specific pathology that drove their killer(s)," he wrote on Twitter.
Delete and try again. Name the place of worship. Name their religion. Put your arms around them. Condemn the specific pathology that drove their killer(s). https://t.co/2tMO8uuxZB— Andrew MacDougall (@AGMacDougall) March 15, 2019
Other conservative politicians, including Harper and Premier Doug Ford, also denounced the attack, standing in solidarity with the Muslim community.
As this awful news out of Christchurch develops, we stand united with our friends in New Zealand condemning such vile acts. My prayers are with the Muslim community.— Stephen Harper (@stephenharper) March 15, 2019
I strongly condemn the horrifying attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. I join people across Ontario and Canada and stand with all legislators at Queen’s Park in condemning this hatred and violence towards our Muslim brothers and sisters.— Doug Ford (@fordnation) March 15, 2019
During the 2015 general election campaign, Harper came under fire as his party proposed to create a government-run "barbaric cultural practices" tipline that was criticized as an incitement for Canadians to denounce Muslims.
Ford and his caucus have previously refused to denounce Goldy and her ideals, which include wanting Canada to become “96 per cent Euro-Canadian.”
In September 2018, a picture emerged of the Ontario premier with Goldy at a barbeque in his backyard.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 2:32 p.m. ET on March 15, 2019 with comments from a new statement released by the office of Andrew Scheer and other background, including reaction from Quebec Premier François Legault.